Today, we meet the man on the other end of Bell's
new telephone. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Alexander Graham Bell's
famous first words on his telephone were, "Watson,
come here, I want you!" Those words memorialized
Watson's name, but his person is largely forgotten.
So who was he?
Frederick Allen tells about Thomas
Watson. He was born in 1854, the son of a livery
stable owner in Salem. As a young man he tried
bookkeeping and found it boring -- carpentry and
found it exhausting. Then he found work in a Boston
machine shop. While Bell was trying to build a new
kind of telegraph, he found twenty-year-old Watson
in that shop. Bell liked him and soon hired him as
his assistant. Two years later, in 1876, Bell was
able to summon Watson on their embryonic telephone.
Bell married a year later and went off on his
honeymoon. He left Watson to keep developing the
new device and to solve technical problems in the
first commercial phones.
Watson stayed with Bell for seven years. As the
business mushroomed, he grew wealthy and restless.
So he left Bell to seek new adventures. He married
and tried to settle into farming. He wasn't cut out
for that, so next he formed his own machine shop.
That business did very well.
In the 1890s he decided to alleviate unemployment
in the Boston area by building naval vessels. It
worked. The company's payroll grew to 4000
employees, and Watson grew restless again.
This time he turned to the study of voice (which
Bell had encouraged.) Watson and his wife also took
up the study of geology at MIT. By the time he had
a fossil gastropod named after him, his company
replaced him as its president. No matter: Watson
the geologist went off to California and Alaska to
look for gold mines.
In 1910, he threw his full energies into voice and
elocution. He found work as an extra in an English
Shakespeare company. About that he wrote, "Never
before had I felt such a constant freshness,
exhilaration, and capacity for work and study."
Within months he was doing speaking roles at
Stratford-upon-Avon. He eventually quit that to
join other actors forming their own company. For
two years he wrote dramatizations of novels for
them to perform.
Back in Boston, Watson spent his last years doing
theater, dramatic readings, and lectures on geology
and the telephone.
No doubt he'd played a greater role in inventing
the telephone than history grants him. But who
cares! While others strangled on worries about
priority and recognition, Watson was driven by a
passionate love for doing and being. Success can be
the great destroyer of lives. We need to be able to
walk away from it. He knew that sowing is
ultimately a lot more fun than reaping.
Thomas Watson's life was certainly risky and
uneven. But view him from the right angle, and I
think you'll find that he offers us an astonishing
recipe for creative fulfillment.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds